A Swiss Bank Holiday – 24 Hours in Zurich

by Continental Club on May 28, 2009

Life’s good in Zurich – and that’s official. For eight consecutive years from 2001 to 2008, the Swiss city stubbornly came out top in human resources consultancy William M Mercer’s quality of life index, which audits 215 cities worldwide. The predictably of the result would have become boring, had 2009 not brought with it the news that the city had fallen headlong down the rankings, to the civic pride-devastating position of second place.

The Mercer study carefully measures 39 different criteria, including leisure and relaxation, safety, cleanliness, political and economical stability, and medical care. I have a sneaking suspicion, however, that the initial short-listing is undertaken on the basis of one single question: does the place look a bit boring? Experience shows that almost every city which triumphs in these regular ‘liveability’ competitions tends to lack a certain something in the built environment with which other, reportedly less ‘liveable’ cities might instantly be recognised. Take Melbourne, for example. You’d practically have to be a local to be able to immediately recognise the Arts’ Centre or Flinders Street station. True, Vancouver has a stunning backdrop of mountains, but more than usually they’re swathed in cloud and the unremarkable skyline could be any of at least a dozen waterside metropoli. And so it is that Zurich, often mistakenly considered to be the capital of Switzerland (no, that’s Berne), would challenge even the most-travelled of cityscape identifiers were they to be presented with a skyline silhouette. A place to wow the new arrival this is not, then, but its charms grow more subtly and it doesn’t take long to begin to appreciate the many subtle virtues that would indeed make this a most pleasant place to live and work.

First though, let’s get the money thing out of the way. The Swiss, and the good burghers of Zurich in particular, have one of the highest levels of personal income in the World. It’s said that money doesn’t make you happy, but as the Swiss know all too well, it does make you very rich. Since wealth tends to beget wealth, it’s not only the locals who are to be found patronising the exclusive boutiques of the Bahnhofstrasse, and the surrounding networks of spotlessly-clean alleys and wynds. Oh no, those whose bullion sweats gently in the vaults of those famously shy banks clearly feel the need to come and look at their ingots regularly, perhaps to stroke them, polish them, or just file a bit off to go and buy an island. Or Zimbabwe. They fly in on SWISS, the only airline in the World in this global recession that is upgrading all its long-haul routes to carry a First Class cabin. They stay in hotels whose rates reflect mostly the weight-of-demand and spending-power of their guests, rather than any kind of relevance to anything of comparable standard outside the country. And then they drink and dine in perfect-people-watching open air cafes, or discreet restaurants where the discussion of dripping indulgence can be undertaken away from prying eyes and dropping eaves.

Back to the Bahnhofstrasse though and, despite a few adjacent incursions from C&A; and some rather communist-looking departments stores, it’s an easy place to heat up a credit card on clothes, bags, perfumes and other branded goods.

Venture beyond, leaving behind the artful plantpots of the current garden festival, and the streets become a mix of galleries and cafes, boutiques and speciality stores, with a notable prevalence of very expensive furnishing and homeware emporia. The Swiss, and their visitors, clearly like their cushions and cutlery. Indeed one purveyor of stylish ladieswear had felt the need to include a range of china in his window display: ‘Oh, madame, that gown would look simply divine accessorised with this cruet. No? Perhaps a teapot then?’

In the midst of this couture and crockery en route from the Bahnhofstrasse towards the river, the church of St Peter looks down on its parish of conspicuous wealth. It’s certainly very pretty in an Alpine kind of way, but it holds a claim to fame that, at first glance, seems unlikely; believe it or not, St Peter’s clockface is the biggest in Europe, and the largest church clockface in the World. At 8.7m in diameter, it beats Big Ben by 1.8m. That’s slightly wider than a London Routemaster bus is long. Mind, if you think that’s big, you want to see the size of the cuckoo….. The small hill to the West of St Peter’s is the Lindenhof, which has been inhabited since 1500BC. It’s not immediately apparent that much has been done to upgrade it since, although it does at least get a note in the history books. It was the site of the citizens of Zurich swearing their oath of allegiance to the Helvetic constitution in 1798. These days, it’s a grassless park which does however represent a good vantage point from which to survey the Limmat River and the buildings of the North bank.

Most obvious amongst these is the Grossmunster, a Romanesque church completed in 1220 with iconic (well, as iconic as Zurich gets) twin towers that were added in the 18th Century following a fire.

In front of the Grossmunster when viewed from the grandstand of the Lindenhof, and built almost in the river, the Renaissance-style Rathaus anchors the wide promenade of the Limmatquai at its Eastern end. Reached by way of the eponymous bridge, the Rathaus plays host to an adjacent and uber-stylish cafe and bar. From its large open-air terrace, customers may observe the passage of time and talent from the comfort of deeply-cushioned rattan sofas and armchairs, shading their sprayed-on tans from the natural elements beneath wide canvas canopies.

Those less keen on being quite so seen (or seeing so much) might chose to cool their heels instead a little closer to St Peter’s, at the pavement cafe of the Hotel zum Storchen in Am Weinplatz. Though the people-watching is slightly poorer, the daytime selection of food at this still-riverside cafe is more comprehensive than at the Rathaus, including some very good salads and ice creams. If the area to the South of the crystal-clear waters of the Limmat is the shopping mecca of the city, then that adjacent to the Rathaus and the Grossmunster is undoubtedly the focus for dining, drinking and nightlife.

There are all manner of nightclubs and bars catering to the various predelictions of their target clienteles, including a quite spectacular number of ‘exotic’ establishments aimed primarily at the single gentleman. In fact, it doesn’t take a walk of the streets to note this; the free official city guidebook carries 11 full-page adverts for these providers of short-term companionship. When in Zurich, it might be considered de rigeur to do the Swiss ‘thing’ and sample the domestic cuisine at a restaurant such as the well-located Swiss Chuchi. Forming the ground-floor of the Hotel Adler, the outdoor seating area at Swiss Chuchi is yet another great place from which to observe the flow of humanity heaving past. The service is friendly, but it quickly becomes apparent that the Swiss would no more dine (or pay the prices) here than yodel the day’s gold price from a cereal bowl-selling dress shop.

What they do, it transpires, is walk past the place and stare at the entirely bizarre vista of tourists toasting bits of native vermin on George Foreman grills attached to extension cables that snake across the cobbles. Meanwhile, they wander off for a far more sensible pizza. You live and learn. Cheese-somothered rabbit aside, Swiss Chuchi is still a marvellous viewfinder through which to watch the promenading locals outside who, it seems, evolve from handsome and well-dressed in the twilight, to ever more exotically-attired as the evening progresses. Alongside these displays of vestments which even Joseph would probably considered a bit garish, it also transpires that Zurich does a good line in chavs and stag parties, ladettes and hen nights. They’re way off the pace though, at least compared to their Anglo Saxon counterparts; they may wear the uniform of Nike and Lacoste, but their cheery hellos and twin-cheek kisses of greeting between passing stag/hen combinations give them away as amateurs. They will never cut it against the finely-honed perfection of the genre, represented by the 2 litre bottles of cider and vomit crusted crop-tops that are the British way. The Swiss, it seems, also have much to learn.

To clear the head after a night of doubtful health and safety, the comprehensive tram network will deliver the visitor almost inevitably at some point, along any of its routes, to the Hauptbahnhof and, from here, the S10 train ascends a steep and winding track, first through the suburbs and then through trees and meadows to Uetliberg.

From the picturesque station, numerous walks fan out – ranging in lengths from a gentle stroll to multi-day hike. Most visitors, if they can drag themselves away from the platform tearoom, make the 10 minute climb to the summit of the 873m high hill by way of some steps and a wide track, sentried by some rather esoteric lamp standards.



Arriving relaxed and with the assistance of the S10, it’s something of a surprise to find the top of the hill thronged with sweating lycra-clad cyclists, gasping for air and dousing themselves with bottles of water. Perhaps they didn’t know that there’s a train.

Hills are, of course, things that the Swiss do rather well. By contrast, it’s probably fair to say that no-one does hills as badly as the British. This particular Swiss mini-mountain has a railway, a station, a cafe at the station, two hotels, numerous picnic areas, a bar, a sausage and ice-cream kiosk, a terrace, an additional viewing platform and a radio transmitter.

Back home, you’re lucky if you get a dry stone wall to wee behind and even then you’re apt to zip up and find a mono-toothed farmer with a baying hound bearing down on you. Uetliberg is therefore a ‘top hill’ and the Swiss are to be commended for making it accessible to everyone, not just to those with a waterproof and napsack fetish. And I’m sure that those cyclists will know for next time. Anyway, from the aforementioned viewing platform, there’s a 360-degree panorama which extends from the underwhelming skyline of the city in front, around to the sparkling waters of the Zurichsee and then further to the folded valleys hiding Winterthur and then back to the city again. On a clear day, the Alps provide a most impressive backdrop.

Once back in the city, it might be considered prudent to augment the observation of wealth with a little culture, the most obvious bastion of which is the Swiss Museum, the Schweizerisches Landesmuseen. Conveniently located next door to the Hauptbahnhof and therefore a neat continuation of an Uetliberg trip, the museum houses Switzerland’s most comprehensive cultural and historical collection, covering pre-history, antiquity, the Middle Ages and on to the 20th Century.

Fans of the dramatic arts are also well-served with impressive venues, epitomised by the mighty Opera House on Falkenstrasse. One of Europe’s leading stages, the venue is known for its breadth of repertoire and is popular with traditionalists and supporters of modern interpretation alike.

And with that rather obvious link to the potential for a stereotypically-large lady to begin warbling, our 24 hours in Zurich is over without a triangle of Toblerone ever having passed our lips.

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